The Southern Baptist Convention's Shift: The Echo of a Movement Upon a Whole Denomination

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"I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed." This is not attributed to McGill Johnson (President of Planned Parenthood). This is not attributed to a Democrat lawmaker like Nancy Pelosi or is it attributed to a president like Barack Obama. Instead, this is a quote from W.A. Criswell in 1973, president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1968 to 1970, when asked about the recent Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision that determined that it was a constitutional right for someone to seek an abortion. This is a quote that today would seem to be unspeakable for a pastor in the Southern Baptist denomination, much less for a president of the SBC. Criswell is still a highly venerated figure within the denomination, although these beliefs are usually buried under his later ardent opposition to abortion access and the procedure. This is not the only story of a Southern Baptist changing their whole stance on the issue, as the whole SBC issued three separate resolutions throughout the 1970s that affirmed the denomination’s belief that they should “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

For anyone familiar with the denomination, Criswell’s quote and the resolutions passed by the SBC in the 1970s will be highly puzzling. Today, the SBC is one of the staunchest opponents to the procedure of abortion, religious or not, in the world. What caused this drastic shift in theology? How is it possible that the denomination can shift its positions so far in the opposite direction? I am by no means advocating for abortion in one way or another, but this shift does raise questions even to the most casual observer. The issues that the SBC would dynamically change its position on were not limited to abortion either. The SBC’s position on war, immigration, education, and religious involvement in public spheres would also shift in varying degrees to resemble something that would be considered in opposition to prior positions that the denomination held.

The Southern Baptist Convention underwent a great transformation in the second half of the twentieth century. Labeled as the ‘conservative resurgence’ by its proponents and as the ‘conservative takeover’ by its detractors, this schism would prove to be the most significant ideological battle within the Southern Baptist Convention in its nearly two-hundred-year history. While the occurrence of this phenomenon was debated at first, it is now considered established fact. However, while much scholarship has been done on this phenomenon and this event that occurred in 1979, not much analysis has been performed on the subsequent change in both the ideology, theology, and the rhetoric of the Southern Baptist Convention following the conservative resurgence. In this paper, I seek to explore the extent to which the conservative resurgence impacted the denomination in its ideology, specifically pertaining to its political involvement. Through this paper, I will examine the growing alignment of the Southern Baptist Convention with conservative political ideology following the conservative resurgence and study to what extent the architects of the shift in the SBC accomplished their stated goals. Through both data analysis of resolutions passed by the SBC since 1960 and examination of the rhetoric of prominent figures within the church and politicians tied to the SBC, it is the aim of the paper to demonstrate the rhetorical aims of the church and quantify its shift since the 1979 SBC convention.


This paper was presented as part of the History Research Seminar (HIST 4603) taught by Dr. Myra Houser.

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